A basic approach social workers can use with many clients covering person-centred practice, interview techniques, practice models, child aware practice and setting boundaries.
This page has three sections:
Background Material that provides the context for the topic
A suggested Practice Approach
A list of Supporting Material / References
Person-centred practice is central: shared decision making with an emphasis on empowering people and assisting them with self-determination. The person’s preferences and goals are important and form the basis of discussion.
It is important to gather information in order to complete relevant aspects of a biopsychosocial-spiritual assessment.
Simple social interchanges (e.g. comments or questions related to transport, parking, and the weather) and shaking hands (when appropriate) will assist in making the client feel welcome. This stage should provide answers to: (i) What is this going to be all about? (ii) What kind of worker is this going to be?
2. Establish a relationship: Clarify the purpose for meeting, the limits of confidentiality, what will happen with what we discuss, and how long we will talk for (e.g. evaluate after 45 minutes).
Engaging with interest and warmth
Offering acceptance and empathic understanding
Demonstrating a respect for the client’s individuality
Being genuine and authentic
Be aware the potential power differential between me and the person.
3. Attend (SOLAR)
S Face clients squarely, indicating availability and interest in client
Adopt an open posture
Lean towards the client
E Maintain appropriate eye contact
R Remain relatively relaxed
4. Open questions: What, why, how and could / could you
5. Prompt, and offer encouragers: Nods, gestures, ‘I see’, ‘uh-huh’
6. Reflect feelings (empathy): It appears that … / sounds like … / looks like …; you seem to feel …; I get the impression that …/
10. Use silence
11. End the interview: consider content covered, goals for next interview.
Pond (2023), who became a social worker late in life, writes about the important lessons he learned as a beginning counsellor:
A counsellor’s life experience can be more valuable for clients than their counselling experience. One’s personal challenges, failures, victories, insights and own mental health journey are powerful and can be every bit as essential as one’s clinical experience to both the therapeutic alliance and client outcomes.
It’s OK to be a beginner. A corollary to accepting that one is a novice is admitting it and asking for help when needed.
When in doubt, just be there for the client. Counselling isn’t about solving a client’s problems; it’s just about showing up and being there for the client.
Learn more than you have to. Dedicating a few hours per month to continuing education is a great investment and will build good habits for the future.
Every counselling student should leave school with some expertise in at least a couple go-to modalities.
Being able to treat trauma may be the most important skill a counsellor can have. Many clients either have trauma or their presenting symptoms can be traced to earlier trauma.
Different therapeutic choices can all be valid. If a solid, trust-based relationship exists between client and therapist, many modalities can support positive clinical outcomes. An integrated approach is often more powerful than any one intervention in isolation, and as a client progresses, it’s helpful to modify treatment choices.
Just because someone has a lot of experience doesn’t mean they always give good advice.
Sometimes a situation is beyond your scope of practice. If a client needs help outside the counsellor’s area of competency, the danger is “guessing” about which interventions to use or trying things we just don’t know how to do.
Learn to practice self-care early. Counselling can also be overwhelming at times. Some basic self-care techniques can make a big difference, e.g., allow a few minutes between sessions to reflect and reset and schedule downtime to recharge.
Clients are often profound teachers. Clients are almost always capable of figuring things out, leading their own healing and offering profound insights into their own realities as well as into life in general.
Preferred Practice Models
Be aware of Professional Boundaries
Professional relationship boundaries can be placed on a continuum from ‘entangled’ to ‘rigid’. The mid-range of the continuum represents ‘balanced’ professional relationship boundaries.
Occasionally workers will breach professional boundaries for good reason, i.e. do something that is not in accord with an accepted standard of behaviour such as give a client a personal phone number when no other resources are available. But these decisions should make sense to other professionals in the circumstance.
Establish a working relationship – with empathy
Introduce the environment: e.g. too hot, window open
Tea, coffee, water?
General questions to the person, e.g. weather conditions, finding the place, travel time, parking
Introduce myself: working life, social work qualifications, experience with people, life orientation to helping people to navigate issues in life
Confidentiality (AASW member so do not share what we talk about with others unless you give consent)
Explore the issue
Explore the reason for coming, e.g. what is the issue, when did it start, how have your responded, how has it affected you?
Conduct BPPS assessment, especially around support (family, friends, medical, peer-to-peer, education), stressors, client’s strengths and protective factors
Check Maslow’s Hierarchy
Identify the problems so both client and I agree on this (single sentences).
Examine possibilities and solutions
Use miracle question – What would it look like if things were just the way you wanted them to be? Identify goals that are specific, concrete and achievable in a reasonable time frame (i.e. SMART goals). Frame them in positive language.
Scale these goals on a scale of 1 – 10, i.e. where things are now and where they would be if successfully achieved.
Brainstorm tasks (What has worked before? What are your strengths that may help achieve the goals?)
Consider pros and cons of various strategies for achieving goals. Consider obstacles to completion and how the client’s strengths can help manage these.
Decide on a course of action and specify the responsibilities of worker and client with time lines (role playing may be appropriate)
Undertaking work together to resolve or address the problem or issue
Carry out the plan and evaluate, alter, (i.e. adjust approach) and then move to another issue if necessary
Be conscious of Child Aware Practice
Parents with mental health, addiction, homelessness and family violence issues can cause major difficulties for children. These can have life-long consequences, e.g. suicide, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, high-risk sexual behaviour, violence and criminal offending, homelessness and abuse and neglect of one’s own children. Therefore, it is important that those supporting adults also assess the impact of adults’ issues on children and take steps to support adults in their parenting role. This is what Child Aware Practice is about. You will find this topic covered in more detail on the website at https://www.thesocialworkgraduate.com/post/child-aware-practice
Finishing the work together, often with a review
Discuss progress to goals and finishing the relationship regularly during the process
At the end of the process summarise client achievements, skills, positives and areas to be aware of. Discuss managing future problems that may arise.
Addendum: The Structural Approach
In 2023 Wendt et al. suggested social workers use a structural approach when supporting families who are managing different issues: intergenerational disadvantage, mental illness, family domestic violence and alcohol and other drug use. The following material (around dealing with intergenerational disadvantage) is worth considering when dealing with families.
Structural social work links individual “problems” to broader societal injustices. It views social inequalities, rather than individual deficiencies as the root of people’s problems. The twofold goal of structural social work is to address people’s problems by examining the social order that surrounds them while simultaneously working to transform society through social reforms and fundamental social change. Social workers operating from a structural perspective foster an open, supportive and egalitarian relationship with people by recognising and honouring the person’s expertise in their personal situation (George & Marlow, 2005).
Developing respectful and honest relationships with families is key to this structural and strengths-based practice approach. Understanding the challenges parents have faced, the strategies they use to overcome these challenges, and their hopes for their children is critical. At the same time, an honest relationship allows for a genuine understanding of the effects of adult adversity on children. This understanding is key to the safety and wellbeing of children who are living with complex and intersecting issues such as disadvantage, parental substance use, mental illness, trauma and violence (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).
Intergenerational disadvantage is commonly defined as socioeconomic disadvantage which reflects not only people’s lack of economic resources, but also their social exclusion and limitations on their aspirations and political voice. Disadvantage can persist within communities across generations when there is a lack of socioeconomic opportunities for vulnerable people and their families.
Factors that may contribute to intergenerational disadvantage include:
Family size and culture
Language spoken at home
Poverty, trauma, abuse and neglect, and mental health difficulties play out within and across generations, yet are often responded to as short-term, individual and isolated challenges.
Practice strategies for families experiencing intergenerational disadvantage
Acknowledge that structural issues, not the person, are at the root of problems. This gives a different sense of the situation. It shifts the social worker from being the expert with solutions to a person who shares and reflects with the person, ideally concentrating on the person’s strengths.
It is important to develop the human connection. Be upfront. Be honest, respectful, not over-promising, just telling the person what the practitioner’s role is, what she or he can and can’t do
Acknowledge that the actual attendance of parents at a session and willingness to have a conversation is an act of resilience.
Notice the things the person has done, the attempts to do things differently while acknowledging that times can be challenging.
Stress that the person is not alone in their experiences and there are elements of the situation that are bigger than them. Identify these structural conditions that enable and maintain the position the person is in.
Where relevant, tap into the children’s experiences—ask what children are experiencing, and ask the parent what she or he thinks the children are experiencing (Wendt, Rowley, Seymour, Bastian, & Moss, 2023).
Supporting Material / References
(available on request)
Generalist Social Work (Pearson Education)
George, P., & Marlowe, S. (2005). Structural social work in action. Journal of Progressive Human services, 16(1), 5-24. doi:10.1300/J059v16n01_02
Pond, W.K. (2023, October 23). What I’ve learned as a new professional counselor. Counseling Today. https://ct.counseling.org/2023/10/what-ive-learned-as-a-new-professional-counselor/
Wendt, S., Rowley, G., Seymour, K., Bastian., & Moss, D. (2023). Child-focused practice competencies: Structural approaches to complex problems. Emerging Minds Practice Paper. https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/child-focused-practice-competencies-structural-approaches-to-complex-problems/?audience=practitioner